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    As drug debate rages, compare prices

    By SHELBY OPPEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


    As presidential candidates and congressional hopefuls battle over who would do more to help seniors pay for prescription drugs, consumer advocates propose a quicker solution:

    Shop around.

    By driving past the closest pharmacy to one that charges less, some consumers could cut their bills by more than one-third, according to a survey by the Center for Florida Consumers, a non-profit group not associated with drug companies or pharmacies.

    "There is something they can do right now to help themselves," said Barbara Hengstebeck, director of the Coalition to Protect America's Elders, which endorsed the survey.

    The survey telephoned 201 pharmacies in Florida, Georgia and Alabama in mid-August to compare 30-day prescription prices on four commonly used drugs: Claritin, an allergy medicine; Paxil, an antidepressant; Zocor, a medication to reduce cholesterol; and Prilosec, a stomach medication used to treat acid reflux.

    Across Florida, prices varied as much as $23.74 for a month's supply of Claritin, $28.30 for Paxil, $27.40 for Zocor and $32 for Prilosec.

    The price range among 16 pharmacies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties was smaller. Prices for Claritin varied as much as $18.47, $14.20 for Paxil, $16.25 for Zocor and $21.40 for Prilosec.

    (The survey did not analyze drug prices elsewhere in West Central Florida.)

    Many consumers with private health insurance pay a set co-payment for prescription drugs, and therefore wouldn't save more by comparison shopping.

    But for the uninsured, including one-third of the nation's seniors, saving money on full-cost prescription drugs is vital.

    Medicare, the federal program for Americans 65 and older and the disabled, does not cover prescriptions. In January, Florida will begin providing up to $80 a month for prescription drug costs for about 30,000 seniors, but participants must be between 90 percent and 120 percent of the poverty level.

    Officials with the Center for Florida Consumers did not identify any trends in their survey -- for example, that chain drugstores charge less than independent pharmacies. However, of the 16 stores surveyed in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, only two do not belong to national chains.

    Among those 16 stores, Target stores in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater offered the lowest prices on all four drugs. Other stores in the survey outside Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, including Eckerd, Walgreens, Phar-Mor and Kmart, offered the lowest price for one or two of the drugs but charged higher prices for the others.

    In Sun City Center, a retirement community near Hillsborough County's southern border, pharmacist John Gattoline says the survey only tells part of the story.

    Gattoline, who has owned Sun City Drugs since 1978, charges more for Claritin than any other bay area store in the survey -- $82.46 for a month's supply, compared to $63.99 at the Target store on W Gandy Boulevard in Tampa.

    Yet Gattoline's prices for Prilosec, Paxil and Zocor fall closer to mid-range in the survey. All of his drug prices are competitive with those charged at the five chain pharmacies within a mile of his business, he said.

    "You're not going to be the lowest person on the block for every single drug. If you are, you're not going to be in business," Gattoline said.

    Plus, as an independent pharmacist, Gattoline said he provides services that chains rarely do, such as home delivery, special packaging to make it easier for customers to take medicines correctly and allowing customers to run a tab.

    "If I was outrageously priced for all these years, I would not be in business," he said. "Not in this neighborhood."

    Where to call:

    For information about the survey, call the Center for Florida Consumers at (850) 383-9970.

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